Co.Design

How GE Branded My Unborn Baby

A tiny logo hidden on ultrasounds could be coaxing new parents to buy GE's fleet of home appliances.

238,900 miles from Earth, I see my unborn child for the first time. My view is a grainy black-and-white image on a 10-inch screen, unremarkable and indistinguishable in every way, save for the tiniest of bubbles. It’s the great unknown. It’s my moon.

I never cared about an ultrasound before my wife’s, before that grainy black-and-white image was our crystallizing future, before the radioscopic pulse of the diagnostic sound waves transitioned seamlessly into a heartbeat. The cadence was impossibly confident for an entity so small and distant. It was the sound of life itself.

It wasn’t until hours later, staring at a snapshot in a trance, that I realized how intensely we’d been manipulated by a higher power. Because right beside the fetus were two letters that glowed like a star against the black background: GE.

My child was but a bundle of organized cells just a few weeks in development, yet he or she had already been enlisted as a soldier in the $4.6 billion ultrasound market war. My baby had been branded before birth, and I’d never look at GE’s microwaves, light bulbs, and wind turbines the same way again.

The Power Of Unconscious Branding

A few weeks later, I hop on the phone with Douglas Van Praet, Fast Company contributor and author of the book Unconscious Branding, which explores how advertisers use powerful psychology to pull a consumer’s strings at the limbic level. And I ask Van Praet what he thinks about corporate logos finding their way on ultrasounds beside developing children.

“It’s primal branding at its best,” Van Praet concedes as he flips through a folder of ultrasound shots I'd sent him, one after another, brand after brand, that each mark embryos with a GE, Philips, or Siemens logo. “You’ll never, ever feel a connection more deeply to anyone than your child.”

On my end, I experience a sort of Pavlovian association, he explains. In a moment of awe, GE peeks its face into the frame. And as I look at this image more, every time rekindling a moment of joyous discovery, GE can gently associate itself with positivity.

Now that's not just a bunch of Freudian philosophy about the nature of consciousness. This powerful brand association has actually been proven in labs. Researchers at University of Toronto have shown test subjects fictional brands, each associated with positive and negative imagery. By the end of the test, subjects couldn't consciously remember any of the good/bad associations, but when asked how they felt about those fictional brands, the imagery had left a strongly correlative aftertaste in their mouths--an “I like it, but I don't know why' effect” and the exact opposite.

We call this aftertaste “intuition.”

"It's certainly conceivable that you'd pick up the GE brand on the unconscious level because it’s so subtle," Van Praet explains. And in GE's case, the brand is leveraging a particularly powerful trigger--my child--whose importance sinks all the way down to the deepest parts of my brain and my basest instinct to reproduce. (It's the same reason Michelin ads feature babies sitting in tires.) It’s an all-around branding coup. But there are still rules of engagement when deploying these sly branding maneuvers.

Rules Of Manipulation

Researcher Dr. Patrali Chatterjee, of Montclair State University, has spent her career exploring how brands work their way into our unconscious and has shown how tools like online ads that we believe we ignore can sear their way into our preferences.

When I show her a few ultrasounds, she’s intrigued.

“The positive warm glow you feel for your baby probably transfers to the [GE] logo,” she says without much hesitation--which is particularly useful in my situation, she points out, as new parents make a lot of domestic purchases (purchases that include refrigerators and dishwashers stamped with the GE logo). That halo effect can be so powerful, she continues, that someone in my situation could even pay more attention to GE commercials they see on TV.

But there are rules to the way these manipulations work, she explains. For a logo to hijack our brains and hearts through pre-attentive processing (those things we see in the corner of our eye), we require multiple exposures to the stimulus. Chatterjee has found this unconscious, positive association to occur within 23 exposures, but she believes it could probably happen in even fewer.

“When consumers process any stimulus--a logo is a brand stimulus--implicitly it only creates a weak memory trace. The weak memory trace by itself can’t really change behavior," Chatterjee explains. “But over multiple exposures, those weak memory traces start to become stronger.”

“The consumer is unaware that those memory traces exist. Let’s take John and Jane Doe looking at an ultrasound. They’re looking at a picture, they’re oohing and ahhing, showing it to their friends, talking about it, putting it in a scrapbook. They’re focusing on the baby. They may not even know it’s an ultrasound made by a GE machine, but they see it multiple times.”

“Then, maybe they’re buying a new house, and so they’re buying appliances, they go to a big-box store, they’re looking at multiple brands. It is quite conceivable they will be more attracted to the GE brands."

Now for this long con to work, the logo has to be identical everywhere I see it. That means their main logo in the corner of the ultrasound is probably quite powerful, while the tiny GE typed next to the baby--the one that got me so worked up in the first place--is a relative waste, Chatterjee would argue.

The Risk Of Consumer Pushback

The other catch, maybe the most important catch of all when working in unconscious branding, is that the consumer can’t recognize they’re being manipulated, or very bad things happen.

"The thing about unconscious branding is that when you become cognizant that your buttons are being pushed, you’ll reject the advertisers," Van Praet says. (Indeed. You may, for instance, find yourself writing an article about it on Fast Company!)

Van Praet cites canned laughter as a perfect example of this rejection phenomenon. Canned laughter can actually make television shows seem funnier, subtly encouraging your social self to laugh out loud even if you're sitting alone on the couch. But as soon as you notice the construct, it hits you in the gut that you've been had, and within moments you'll find yourself watching the eerily silent scenes of The Big Bang Theory on YouTube.

And that's where I am now, feeling manipulated and even a bit betrayed by a piece of medical equipment that's probed my spouse to slap a brand on my baby. So I do what any future father would do in this situation: abuse my limited powers of influence, call GE's ultrasound department, and get some answers.

GE's Response: We Actually Meant To Manipulate Someone Else

GE's spokespeople, of course, are so exceedingly nice that my conspiracy theory is equal parts diffused and emboldened by the time we wrap up with the pleasantries. They've connected me with Barbara Del Prince, global marketing manager for GE's Women's Health Ultrasound, who talks all things baby with such an approachable clinical proficiency that I think if she weren’t representing a $2 billion a year business and GE’s largest product in health care, she'd make a hell of a doula.

Of course, she's more than agile at answering my big question. The typed GE that sits beside the baby is actually a functional tool on the ultrasound screen, she explains. It's like a cursor for the ultrasound probe that signals its position to the doctor. And that's why it's right next to the image, so a doctor can reference the probe’s position in relation to the fetus.

But remember what Dr Chatterjee told me--that the typed GE probably doesn’t matter as much as the clearer GE logo in the corner. When I point out that the main GE logo in the corner is the largest added component on the ultrasound--larger than any piece of diagnostic information on the page--Del Prince just laughs. "Is it?" she asks, mid-chuckle. The tacit implication seems to be that GE is at least a bit guilty-as-charged for the subtle self-promotion. But that self-promotion is less for winning over parents than for winning over doctors, Del Prince insists.

"It comes in handy during trade-show presentations, because a lot of times, as other physicians are going to the experts, learning what they do, they want to see what tech they were using," Del Prince says. "This way they aren't stopping a physician every five feet."

Essentially, this branding allows doctors to sell GE ultrasound machines and other medical equipment to other doctors. That logo serves as an endorsement just like the swoosh on a Tiger Woods Nike golf ball. But what about my wife and I, and all the other couples out there, seeing a pregnancy for the first time? Wasn't there some beneficial halo effect, stemming from ultrasounds and reaching across the greater GE brand, at play?

"I definitely see the benefits of that," Del Prince finally concedes. "[But] I don't know that its actively anything we’ve sought after."

Intentional Or Not, My Baby Is Still Branded

And that is the big answer we'll never know, whether there's a Jack Donaghy within GE plucking at our heart strings to truly love their international brand, or whether the GE probe cursor and the larger accompanying logo was nothing more than an impulsive decision of one of GE's 200+ ultrasound developers on staff, something that an employee could point to if a middle manager asked why Siemens had one more logo on their ultrasound than GE.

“I don’t know if GE is doing this purposefully, if this is a deliberate attempt to influence new parents," Chatterjee tells me, "but the way it looks to me, when I look at this ultrasound, is that even if they don’t intend it, even if it’s a coincidence, it can act toward driving brand preferences toward GE products.”

So ultimately, as thousands of new parents make their own voyages to the moon each day, the GE brand is stamping itself into their mushy hearts along the way. That is, so long as those new parents don’t spot the tactic ... so long as those new parents aren’t reading this article right now.

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26 Comments

  • Jostlle

    I work for one the big 3 you list in the medical device war and can assure you as the marketing vp told you their intent is not toward the end client, ie you. The brand is put on there for tracking and the customer purchasing the unit,, ie the doctor. I've seen the GE logo on all our ultra sounds and it didn't in the least make me want to purchase a GE appliance. I just got rid of a horrible GE fridge that we never liked and will probably stop us from ever purchasing another GE appliance. You are not the equipment customer, so they could careless if you see the logo.

  • cirsqutri

    Ridiculous! Why not cut it out with some scissors? The fact that you can see your baby before it born is because of GE...why not send them a thank-you note.

  • Margaret Manzi

    I'll help you unbrand: Every time I've bought a GE small appliance, it has broken within a year or so. Don't spare any warm fuzzy feelings for them. I won't even get into why I stopped buying their stock.

  • Richard Ballermann

    I too noticed the little GE logo on our recent ultrasound and had roughly the same consideration as the article states, but then I took out a pair of scissors and hacked it off before I placed it in a frame. 
    What bothers me more is that GE didn't have the design foresight to remove their nonsensical technical values from DIRECTLY ON TOP of the ultrasound image. Now THAT is intrusive.
    This isn't the new depth of advertising. You are simply tugging on emotional heartstrings to rehash the argument that branding is evil and taking over our lives.

  • Mark Graban

    I really don't understand the harm in GE putting a GE logo on medical information produced by GE equipment. There are 1,000 things that I'd be more outraged about in the healthcare world, including incredibly high rates of preventable patient harm, long waiting times, and increasing costs that bankrupt people. Choose your battles...

  • rjc3000

    Now I know why I named my baby GErald! We were just going to call him Rald. I have a weak mind..

  • Midnafan1

    Is this article for real? I got through two paragraphs before I couldn't read anymore for fear that the mass of stupidity would find it's way in my home and strangle me while I sleep. 

    I completely agree with Rachel Schneider. People are too hypersensitive to things that literally aren't even there. The message I received from this article is that the author doesn't like the placement and font of two simple letters. To be honest, it sounds like every client I've ever had.

  • Rachel Schneider

    Try this: the GE logo is put on the ultrasound to denote who was responsible for the digital image so that it can be tracked or noted.  Maybe the logo isn't about branding the kid, but providing some level of security knowing that an over 100 year old firm produced this technology.  Could this be another example of parent hypersensitivity or a ploy to draw more insidious attention using a yet to be born family member in a semi-exploitive way?

  • chrisheywood81

    I can assure we in the advertising and marketing trades are nowhere near as persuasive as we like to think we are. If GE were an unknown brand, then maybe you could build an awareness correlation. But GE is such a well known company you'd be hard pressed to prove any increase in your consideration set when next buying a refrigerator. Besides, a company puts their logo on something they output? So what? Are Fisher Price logos as insidious? Should we feel invaded by the Kodak logo that marks most of our precious memories? Does a Mitsubishi ball-point pen make me want to buy a car from them? There is a grain of science in vision and recall, but there's also a lot of emotional sensationalism wrapped around it. My view: this is less about selling to you, and more about selling to potential clients of medical imaging.

  • Shawn Jessome

    Only the seriously weak-willed would fall for this kind of "Jedi Mind Trick"

  • econobiker

    Minimal issue versus the junk mail and data mined advertisements you get upon registering for a baby shower, buying baby equipment/food, establishing a newborn's social security number.

  • Steve Pender

    OMG this so horrible. A state of the art technology produced by GE to enable viewing of a fetus, and they add their brand to the readout! This is unpardonable. Electric chair! Ok, maybe not electric chair, but one step below that, disapproving blog post!

  • rockfish66

    This is all a bit overblown, don't you think? How exactly is your baby "branded?' I have a 1 year old and we spent a lot of time gazing at ultrasound images and I can't tell you what brand of machine was used. Might have been a different one every time. I have no idea.
    By the way, did you ever notice that evil "Kodak" branding on the back of the millions of family photos and vacation snapshots that have been taken over the last 60 years? I guess we were all "branded" a long time ago!

  • Chris Carlson

    I'm not sure if your baby has already been born but I'm interested to know whether there is a logo on the bracelets that your newborn will have to wear in the hospital that often get saved by new parents for the "baby book".  Then your baby will have been literally branded. The mark is attached to the baby and not just a picture of the baby. 

  • Lavil

    I noticed this in my ultrasound but I didn't pay as much attention to it as I did looking at the baby. I own no GE products and although GE is a decent company, I've chosen other brands. Would this make be buy GE products? Heck No! It takes more than just positioning a logo to make me choose one brand over another. 
    I think as long as the kid is not born with the GE logo on their forehead we are good. :)

  • Becca W

    This is interesting. I am not bothered by this whole thing.  I did notice the successful marketing of Isolette during my baby experience. Those who work or have babies in the NICU rarely call incubators "incubators". They are mostly referred to as "isolettes". 

  • Nat Scientist

    As long as enough don't notice the retaining walls, the cattle make it to the pen for the rest of their lives.

  • railingk

    "And that's where I am now, feeling manipulated and even a bit betrayed by a piece of medical equipment that's probed my spouse to slap a brand on my baby. "

    This is mental. Have you ever worked for a large conglomerate? I assure you no one in GE's ultrasound division is remotely interested in whether you buy a GE dishwasher.

    "So ultimately, as thousands of new parents make their own voyages to the moon each day, the GE brand is stamping itself into their mushy hearts along the way. That is, so long as those new parents don’t spot the tactic ... so long as those new parents aren’t reading this article right now."

    There are real things in the world to be angry about. This is not one of them.